Jorge Castillo and Nancy Alfaya in Conversation

Illustration by Gianluca Costantini

Jorge Olivera Castillo is currently a City of Asylum Fellow at the Black Mountain Institute in Las Vegas, where he is writing a book of short stories based on his experiences as a soldier in a civil war in Angola that took place between 1974-1989, where Cuba supported one of the sides in the conflict. 

Repeatedly intimidated, arrested, and detained by the authorities in her native Cuba, Nancy Alfaya has been working for human rights for over twenty years. After her husband Jorge Olivera Castillo was imprisoned as a political dissident in 2003 she co-founded the Ladies in White, a group of mothers, wives, and daughters of political prisoners who marched for peace and justice. She is a cultural promoter for the National Union of Cuban Writers and Artists and the coordinator of the Network of Women for Equality, an organization associated with the Citizen Committee for Racial Integration. Alfaya works to empower socially disadvantaged women with a special focus on Black Cubans.

This interview was translated from the Spanish by Lille Allen.

NANCY ALFAYA: Las Vegas is a city that captivated me from the very first days here. It is true that the summer here is very hot, but it would be the place I’d choose to stay and live in. I prefer the heat before the cold winters from the North. What’s more, it has a large Latinx community, something I find very gratifying. It is a chance to keep our roots alive.

JORGE CASTILLO: I think the same. I have felt at home here. Absolutely, we see our future here in this city. At least that is our intention. We will see if it comes true.  

NA: These days I haven’t stopped thinking about how different our life has been here in the US. In Cuba, we would be in jail or harassed to a frenzy. There are activists who are not allowed to leave their homes. Some have spent more than three months in these conditions. 

JC: It has been a great luck to have been able to get out of what literally would have to be compared to hell. Chronic shortage of basic products, lack of medicines, hospitals collapsed by the pandemic and, as if that were not enough, surveillance by the police twenty-four hours a day, and living with the risk of ending up in one of the dozens of prisons or work camps that exist throughout the country’s territory.

NA: Remember when they told us that we were crazy to express our opposition to the regime? You through journalism and poetry and I through activism in defense of women’s rights. I don’t know where we got the strength to resist for so long.

JC: It is not easy to confront a dictatorship, but we did it. The conviction that these were necessary actions in the fight to establish a rule of law was enough to keep us active despite the challenges.

NA: Well, yes. I do not regret those years invested in a worthy purpose, despite so much suffering. It was not a waste of time. It is true that the reward of a thorough system reform is still lacking, however, we did everything humanly possible to help in that regard.

JC: Without meaning to, we become veterans of a war that does not end. Despite the enormous drawbacks, we stood up to the fight. Something that has served to inspire other people to decide to face a government that has plunged the country into ruin, double standards and the fear of expressing themselves freely.

NA: Do you remember the first visit, when you were in the prison in Guantanamo? A few years have passed since that experience. I don’t know if it was the worst. There are so many that it is difficult to say which one was more agonizing. The day they broke into the house and took you to jail was also terrible. That March 18, 2003, we were in shock, in front of those policemen who did not allow us to speak, while filming the articles seized in the registry (many books, photocopies of your essays and chronicles, and an old typewriter).

JC: It’s all in my memory, built against oblivion. I do not hold a grudge against those responsible for all the punishments we have received, but it is impossible to erase from the mind that summary judgment, the nine months in a solitary cell, the twenty-one months that I was locked up, and the sentence to eighteen years in prison, all just for exercising the right to freedom of expression.

The first visit was a divine gift, I remember it was very short and with a jailer standing by our side. Being more than 900km from our house and seeing you every five months was an additional torture. That long trip in airplanes without the proper conditions to fly, were part of the reasons for losing sleep, in addition to the mosquitoes, the poorly prepared food among other circumstances that ended up making me sick.

NA: I lost a few pounds. To think that you were so far away and in those conditions made me incredibly sad. That is why I did not think twice about joining  a movement that advocated for the liberation of all the prisoners of the campaign known as Black Spring of Cuba. An event like that had never occurred. There were seventy-five independent journalists and activists arrested in four days and sentenced to long sentences, all in a little more than a month.

JC: Our wives, mothers, and sisters made history. They were very brave. Creating the Ladies in White was a very bold initiative. Not only founding it but maintaining it despite the brutal repression. That activism in the streets in demand of our liberation, I consider that it was one of the reasons why they released us before fulfilling the sanctions.

NA: It was our duty. We could not give in to the recurring threats from the political police officers. Several times I was warned that I would be imprisoned for twenty years if we continued to march, silently, through the public road with a gladiolus in our hands. The family was nervous with that Sword of Damocles hanging over my head.

JC: Fortunately, the threat never materialized. Imagine the two of us behind bars. Without a doubt, the international pressure was intense, from the moment we were arrested. Even some leftist intellectuals such as José Saramago and Eduardo Galeano publicly opposed the repressive wave.

NA: Do you remember when I told you that you were not going to serve the entire sentence in the visits and in the brief and sporadic phone calls that they allowed us?

JC: Yes of course. I did not believe it. You even set a date for the parole and got it right.You have the credentials of a prophet. I know that it is not an irrational qualification. That December 6, 2004, we were able to meet again at the house. I remember the discussion with the political police officers when we left the prison because they had the order to take us to our apartment and I wanted to go by my own means.

NA: Yes, I remember. The nightmare would continue. In refusing to remain silent, the harassment and threats to send you back to prison continued, especially during the first few months of freedom, though it is worth saying that in Cuba that term is a sort of fiction. The country functions as a penitentiary, run by a single party and thousands of uniformed and undercover police officers.

JC: I couldn’t betray my principles. The need to express my ideas was stronger than the danger of returning to confinement. You know that journalism, literature and music are three vital factors to feed my soul.

Many people do not understand the functioning of the socialism inherited from the former Soviet Union, which will be celebrating its sixty-third anniversary on January 1. They think they are exaggerations, outrageous facts to get attention. The regime has done extraordinary work through propaganda to hide its mechanisms of social control through impunity for repressive acts, indoctrination, permanent surveillance, and the maintenance of poverty levels, effectively managed by party bureaucrats.

It is tremendous to know that they monitor you all the time, via phone and through people who lend themselves to do this type of thing in neighborhoods, workplaces, and institutions.

NA: From August 2019 until we arrived in the United States in December 2021, we have a lot to say in that sense.

JC: In reality, you became the priority target for state security agents. They arrested you every time we left our apartment and the worst thing was that I was left without knowing where they were going.

NA: They never say. And to think that everything was motivated by the activism in the defense of women’s rights, specifically by demanding the establishment of a comprehensive law against violence, gender-based and political, against women, as well as the updating of data on femicides and the training of public officials dedicated to these matters. The campaign was called “United for our rights”.

JC: You were once missing for over twenty-four hours. When you were released, I learned that you had been interrogated and threatened several times while you were confined in a cell at a police station.

NA: I received threats during every arrest. That was part of the routine. Two mobile phones were broken during that long process of short detentions and house arrests. In addition to the imposition of seven fines.

JC: It was a nightmare. I felt that from one moment to the next they would imprison you as they have done with dozens of women who demand the freedom of political prisoners, respect for fundamental freedoms or who actively participate in other activities that they try to carry out in the independent civil society framework.

NA: There were plenty of reasons to think that way.

JC: In general, the situation has worsened since July 11 and 12, when thousands came out to protest in more than fifty towns in the country, calling for reforms and repudiating the government’s management.

Between the lockdowns due to the coronavirus, the increase in shortages, inflation and the exponential rise in violence on the part of the repressive forces, an environment has been created, much more realistic, of that of a concentration camp, ruled by the codes of survival and the terror of the jailers towards each one of the captives.

NA: More than 500 protesters remain in custody.

JC: Some missing. Their families don’t know if they are alive or dead.

NA: I never thought a protest of that magnitude was possible. Everything set off spontaneously.

JC: Social media played a fundamental role. Without it, it would have been impossible. 

NA: I feel sorry for the people burdened by vicissitudes and lack of hope for a better future. Almost everyone wishes to escape from that ordeal. Thousands have died in the Caribbean Sea and in the Central American jungle trying to reach the United States. And despite the risks they will continue trying.

JC: And it’s not because of the embargo. The fundamental cause of the economic crisis is the internal blockade of the communist party, which refuses to carry out profound transformations that stimulate national production and facilitate the growth of investments from other countries.

NA: Much of the world thinks that Cuba is like this because of the sanctions Washington has been imposing since 1960.

JC: Its impact cannot be ruled out. It is obvious that they cause damage, but the main reason is internal. The state monopoly on the economy is a disaster. There is easily verifiable historical evidence. Socialism excels at selling promises and successes on the pages of newspapers and on the news. The governing military elite is betting on the continuity of the model. Therefore, the chances of better living conditions are slim. The future, in the short and medium term, is as dark as the present.

NA: Speaking of the last thing you mention.

JC: What?

NA: The future, but ours here in the United States.

JC: Well, we will begin rebuilding our lives step by step. It is a complex process, not without difficulties, but we must look ahead and take advantage of every opportunity that comes our way. We are fortunate to be in an environment of freedom and opportunities.

NA: How we wish it were for Cuba.

JC: Of course yes. I can’t imagine how that will happen, but let’s hope that history will surprise us. Cuba deserves another destiny. Nothing to do with perfection. A country more attached to common sense, where we can all live accepting our differences responsibly, would suffice. Hatred motivated by an ideology must disappear. It is time to put an end to intolerance. Concord is the goal to be achieved –the sooner the better.

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